Last week, I wrote about why it’s the intensity of exercise, not just the amount of calories you burn, that determines the success of your long term weight control and general fitness. I highly recommend you read that first, but to summarise, it’s better to make your body more calorie-hungry rather than constantly try to burn calories with low impact exercise.
Not only is high intensity exercise more beneficial for you in the long term, it also saves an incredible amount of time: I’m talking significantly improved health with just 3 minutes of exercise a week. For the vast majority of my patients who struggle to exercise enough, time is the main constraint, but if all you need is 3 minutes a week, then there’s really no excuse for an able bodied person not to exercise.
So what do I mean by 3 minutes? That number comes from a study where participants were prescribed three workouts a week where they would cycle as hard as possible for 20 seconds, rest for a minute, then repeat three times – totalling just 3 minutes of activity per week.
When they were examined 12 weeks later, the participants were found to have a higher basal metabolic rate (burning more calories even when at rest), decreased visceral fat, reduced blood glucose and improved cardiovascular health, strength and stamina. Long term, such changes would reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, dementia and reduce general ageing. In other words, for 3 minutes a week, you could add years to your life.
Sounds too good to be true? Here’s how it works
As I wrote last week, our bodies are incredibly adaptable. A high intensity workout “tricks” the body into preparing for that extreme level of activity. If it had a mind of its own, it would say, “What the hell are you doing? I’m not ready for this,” then supply your muscles with more mitochondria, proteins and other nutrients so that they’re better prepared next time, as well as give a boost to your cardiovascular system and fortify your joints and bones.
Not only will you get fitter and stronger, by increasing the amount of metabolically active muscle in your body, you’ll be burning more calories even when at rest, making it far easier to lose weight and – here’s is the big difference – keep it off.
High intensity exercise also causes huge spikes in hormones that facilitate energy conversion, such as adrenaline, which remain at elevated levels long after the exercise has stopped. All of this contributes to a “faster” metabolism, making your body more energy hungry so that it doesn’t convert as much unused energy into fat. By increasing your body’s caloric requirements, you won’t have to worry so much about controlling your intake of calories or burning them off with long duration but low intensity exercise.
What exercises work best for high intensity workouts?
Your objective is to activate as much of your body as possible. If all you did was “extreme” arm workouts, you’ll only have activated a tiny proportion of your muscles, whereas running or cycling will activate the bigger – and therefore more calorie-hungry -muscles in your legs. A general rule of thumb is if you’re breathless and can’t possibly go on, you’ve done a good job.
While you will experience tremendous health benefits from just 3 minute a week, high intensity exercise can also be integrated into your current exercise programme, such as mixing interval sprints into your usual running routine. Many gyms also run high intensity classes, usually labelled as HIT (high intensity training).
A word of caution!
I’ve personally been combining sprint work into my regular jogs around Clapham Common. It’s exhausting, which means my body works hard to improve my fitness to make the next time a little easier. While my fitness was improving, 3 weeks ago I injured my hamstring. I was in a rush and hadn’t warmed up. Yes, yes, of all people I should’ve known better. But this is important. Warm up before you exercise, particularly in the cold. If you aren’t accustomed to exercise, it is also important that you build up a base level of exercise over 6-8 weeks before embarking on the higher intensity work. Your tendons and joints particularly need time to adapt. If you have any underlying medical condition, you should speak to your GP.
For those interested in learning more about this approach to exercise, I recommend Dr Michael Moseley’s book, Fast Exercise. You can get it here and learn more about both improving your approach to diet and exercise.
If you’d like to change your exercise routine, feel free to come in and see us or book a time with our own functional trainer Ryno, who can asses your current fitness and get you ready for high intensity exercise through a mix of one-to-one sessions and prescribed exercises. You can book now by calling 020 7937 1628 or emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clinical Director, West London Physiotherapy